What game would Satan play with God?

Cultural history of the devil"It's boring without the devil"

Gerald Beyrodt: A touch of sulfur wafts through the radio studio, because this is about the devil. In the Middle Ages the devil was always and everywhere. He was considered to be evil. As a child I had a puppet show and I played with it almost every day. I especially loved two characters: one was green, the crocodile, the other was mostly black and had red horns: the devil. If these two characters were involved, then everything went better with the Kasperle stories, because the same Kasperle had a decent opponent or even two. Because protagonists need antagonists for a story to work. Because heroes are twice as heroic when there's a villain.

For the people of the Middle Ages, the devil was anything but a pawn. It's a threatening reality. Theresia Heimerl, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Graz, is researching this time. Mrs. Heimerl, can you give me a profile of the devil?

Theresia Heimerl: The devil has an interesting biography indeed. The name by which many of us know him, Satan, appears in the Old Testament. There he is, however, still an angel, even a high-ranking angel, if you will - but one that people perceive as unsympathetic. He has the function of a public prosecutor, he is the one who roams the earth and then reports it to God and also demands punishment for it.

"This angel became evil"

One can just assume that these very unsympathetic character traits of the devil led sometime in the second century BC to the fact that this angel actually became the evil one, to whom it is then also ascribed that he rebels against God, that he himself rebels against them Place of God and is then overthrown by God and the angels who have remained loyal and falls into the underworld, which we later get to know as hell, and from then on represents evil, the enemy of man, the adversary of God.

To come back to their puppet theater characters: The Bible doesn't tell us at all what this Satan or this adversary looks like. These horns or these goat legs or the horse's foot, the proverbial one of the devil, actually owes itself to the ancient mythological figure of the god Pan or Faunus in Latin. He had such croissants and also goat or goat legs. The devil then gets it iconographically, so to speak, because he also has the great sin of sexual desire for Christianity, which the god Pan also has in ancient mythology, because it is transferred to the devil.

Beyrodt: But if we first review this story of the devil, does that mean he is actually already a particularly Christian figure?

Heimerl: Exactly. Actually, he is a specially Christian figure into which, if you will, pre-Christian ideas have already flowed into them, ideas that arose around the Old Testament in the so-called Apocrypha, i.e. unrecognized texts. But in the form we know him today, he is actually a specially Christian figure that is not found in the Old Testament texts.

"An integral part of the medieval, ecclesiastical pastoral power"

Beyrodt: Today we're a bit used to seeing the devil playfully. But for the people of the Middle Ages he was an everyday threat. Where was it present everywhere in the Christian Middle Ages?

Heimerl: you Theresia Heimerl (Deutschlandfunk / Privat) find him at work almost everywhere in people's imaginations. Basically, every temptation comes from the devil, which means: Actually every sin that I commit as a medieval person is inspired by the devil, is a temptation from the devil, to whom I have unfortunately given in. Basically, he is also responsible for almost all suffering, all evil that happens to me: so for diseases of all kinds, where you imagine, they are also caused by the devil and his demons, for natural disasters, famines, wars, political turmoil, who also influenced people's lives very, very directly. So basically he is responsible for all evil and all bad. And I think if you read into medieval sermons or listen to them, then you get the impression that it was an integral part of the medieval church pastoral power. Because: Who can protect against this omnipresent devil, prevent that one then ends up in hell as a damned one? That is the church with its possibilities, its offers of salvation, if you will.

Beyrodt: You also say in your essays that in the Middle Ages the devil was actually a kind of instrument of power for the church, an instrument of oppression by the church. How do you mean that exactly?

"If hell and the devil fall away, what else can happen to me if I sin?"

Heimerl: Let's put it this way: The medieval pastoral power, as Michel Foucault calls it so beautifully, the church is based very much on the fact that I just say: Earthly life is short and then either eternal damnation or eternal salvation with God in the threat Sky. And the only institution that can guarantee this path to heavenly salvation, to eternal life, so to speak, is the church. And whoever prevents me from doing this permanently by tempting me is the devil. And I put it this way: If hell and devil fall away, the question arises very quickly, as we have of course also seen in the course of secularization: Well, what can still happen to me if I sin, if I do not comply with the church's commandments episode?

Beyrodt: So you have to keep the commandments to avoid going to hell.

Heimerl: Basically, for 90 percent of medieval people, you can assume it. That initially there was really big, really the fear of this very real staged eternal damnation, which does not just consist, as it is said much more carefully today, that one is eternally far from God. But there really was the devil and his demons who torment people in a really sadistic way, and fire pots where you are stewed and the like. And when I have this in mind every time I go to church and hear it in every sermon, then I'm really afraid of ending up there.

"A very interesting figure"

Beyrodt: In your essays you write very smugly about the devil. As I read it, I imagined that this lady was having a lot of fun writing about the devil. Is that correct? In any case, the writing style is very smug.

Heimerl: Yes. So I think the devil is a very interesting figure, a very versatile figure that says a lot about the time in which he is imagined. I think that the devil and what is ascribed to him reveal, I think, medieval Christianity and medieval religiosity very, very beautiful - just like the change, the cultural and social change, when I look at myself Keep looking at the devil - especially in the 19th century, when he really becomes a beautiful, dark angel again and is also presented as such - where I can understand that very nicely. Let me now say something provocative: It's a bit like your puppet theater: Without the crocodile and without this devil figure, which is of course child-friendly, the whole thing will be boring.

Beyrodt: This playful way of dealing with the devil, which one already had with Goethe, actually still exists: the television series "Lucifer", a beautiful, dark man ...

Fresco with angel and devil, Atotonilco, Mexico. (imago / Danita Delimont)

Heimerl: Exactly.

Beyrodt: At the same time, the Pope is still talking about the devil and means it as a great accuser. Do these series makers and the Pope live in completely different worlds?

Structures of evil instead of evil people

Heimerl: Yes. Yes. So I think you can see that very matter-of-factly. In the media world of the western hemisphere, the devil is simply a very interesting, also effective - as you can see in this series and other productions and products - a highly effective asset that you can work with, because it is precisely this ambivalence that makes such characters interesting, because you can definitely fall back on a tradition, but knowing that the viewers no longer take it that seriously. That's the page. And the other, which we are now seeing again with Pope Francis, is already - and I think you have to take that seriously with regard to the Catholic Church, which is a universal Church - that outside of Europe, think I - or perhaps in certain circles in Europe - the devil is actually seen far more than we are as a reality to be taken seriously, as a threat. And I think that in between is the theological, thoroughly Western speech, where one speaks less of the devil as a person - possibly with croissants or the like - but rather of a personification of structures of evil.

Beyrodt: In everyday life, I would think, most people in Central Europe no longer believe in the devil.

Heimerl: Exactly.

"Medieval man could more easily cope with evil"

Beyrodt: There is only one problem: there is still evil. There are at least evil acts and deeds. Ms. Heimerl, are we actually missing something without the devil?

Heimerl: I would put it this way: In a way, the medieval worldview with the devil responsible for everything was much simpler. Yes, I do believe that as a medieval person it was in a certain way easier to deal with the many evils that I encounter on all levels - with the idea: there is someone behind it, there is this devil behind it and he does that to me at. Or he is behind bad people who cause me suffering.

Beyrodt: While the theological ideas of the devil or of evil are much more complicated today.

Heimerl: Yes.Exactly. So today, especially in Western theology, hardly anyone would formulate it in this medieval clarity, which is why we like to speak of these structures of evil, which are, however, hardly tangible and, I believe, this very present today Create a feeling of permanent insecurity. Structures are not so comprehensible and tangible, structures of evil. And I can basically apply that to almost everything: for some, the capital market is a structure of evil, for others a specific political system. This is nowhere near as clear as the figure of the devil has been for centuries.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt statements made by its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.